“Pop” is not a four-letter word. Though maligned by snobs, er, purists, it exists because we crave ear candy, even though we know it lacks nourishment. The issue, of course, is that pop is formulaic. The result is a glut of sound-alike songwriters — Joseph Arthur, Pete Yorn, et al. — whom we largely love, even as they eschew artistic ingenuity for platinum platitudes. Which brings us to Burlington-by-way-of-Texas songwriter and frequent Cush collaborator, Cody Lee. His self-produced debut record, Scorched & Scattered Vol. II, while loaded with hooky confections, never seems to transcend his oft-mimicked influences.
A pretty instrumental intro bleeds into the first true cut, “California” — à la UK indie-pop darling Badly Drawn Boy’s debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, an acknowledged inspiration. It seems you simply can’t be a pop songwriter with Cali connections (Lee worked for three years at Silverlake, CA’s, Paramore Studios and, given the disc’s immaculate production, his time was well spent) without penning a Golden State ode. Lee offers the obligatory nod early and even cribs the theme from “The O.C.” with a well-placed “California, here I come” — just in case you’ve forgotten Cali popsters Phantom Planet. The song sets the album’s tone with jangly guitars and crisp, clean orchestral pop constructs that provide ballast to Lee’s reedy and occasionally thin vocal delivery.
On the plaintive “Life You Own,” Lee evokes a melody reminiscent of Stereophonics’ front man Kelly Jones, minus the rock-tumbler-in-my-throat vocal histrionics.
The album’s best track, “Ode to Barrymore,” is a cheeky paean to Hollywood strumpet Drew Barrymore. Lee employs a swinging, retro-lounge groove that feels something like Burt Bacharach reimagining Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter.
“Cynical Song” maintains the influence idolatry with heavy nods to underrated songwriter Joe Jackson — a.k.a. “the poor man’s Elvis Costello.” Cush cohort Gabrielle Douglas makes a nice cameo on bass and backing vocals.
A cover of Gerry “Stuck in the Middle With You” Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line” oozes Thrills-esque sun-bleached twang. That band staked their claim to fame by referencing an ’80s teen star of their own with “Whatever Happened to Corey Haim?” The Dublin lads later resurfaced with the California anthem “Big Sur” on — drum roll, please! — “The O.C.”
As a debut, Scorched & Scattered Vol. II shows a wealth of promise. But too often it feels like hero worship — or, worse, stylistic pandering. With an ear toward expanding on his influences rather than regurgitating them, Lee has the talent to break his own mold. And if he does, watch out.
Cody Lee performs at The Monkey House in Winooski this Thursday, November 6, with Nashville songwriter Levi Weaver and Burlington’s neo-soul siren Myra Flynn.